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The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison
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The Stainless Steel Rat (1961)

by Harry Harrison

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ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

"At a certain stage, the realization strikes through that one must either live outside of society’s bonds or die of absolute boredom. There is no future or freedom in the circumscribed life and the only other life is complete rejection of the rules. There is no longer room for the soldier of fortune or the gentleman adventurer who can live both within and outside of society. Today it is all or nothing. To save my own sanity, I chose nothing."

In the future society where Jim diGriz lives, most criminal and anti-social behavior has been weeded out of the human genome. It’s hard for bad guys to hide themselves in this antiseptic society — in order to survive, you gotta be a stainless steel rat, and Slippery Jim diGriz is a really sneaky one. He’s exceptionally cunning but he’s not murderous, so when he finally gets caught, instead of fixing him, the intergalactic cops decide to recruit him. Jim’s pretty conflicted about working for the good guys, but soon he’s on his first case after he figures out that somebody evil is building a battleship.

The Stainless Steel Rat is, simply, tons of fun. It’s quick-paced, action-packed, and funny. The villains are purposely overdone in that cheesy James Bond / Batman kind of way, but Harry Harrison doesn’t skimp on Jim diGriz’s character. The Stainless Steel Rat is one of those outlaws that you just can’t help but root for, especially when he’s always amused with himself and his circumstances. For a science fiction novel written in 1961, The Stainless Steel Rat ages well, too.

I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version read by Phil Gigante who gives a lively performance. I’m sure that a lot of my chuckling was caused by Mr. Gigante’s interpretation of diGriz’s personality. In one scene, diGriz takes a drug that’s supposed to help him understand the mind of a sociopath. This was beautifully and hilariously portrayed by Mr. Gigante. Brilliance Audio will be producing several more Stainless Steel Rat novels read by Phil Gigante. I will definitely be picking those up! ( )
  Kat_Hooper | Apr 6, 2014 |
Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat is one of those SF classics I’ve known about for years (probably since the days when I was 8 or 9 and scanning the family bookcases for amusingly odd titles) but never gotten around to reading. Its reputation far, far preceded it: A short, fast, funny read about a roguish master criminal loose in a far-future galactic empire. All that sounded like a good match for a January night (or two), so I pulled it off the shelf.

The 83 pages I made it through before giving up are filled with incidents, but – although they occur in a non-random order and one leads logically to the next – there’s no sense that they add up to an actual plot. I had the sense that the hero was after something more specific than freedom, wealth, and a good cigar . . . but no clue what that was, or how he intended to get it.

The far-future empire in which all this takes place is lightly sketched at best: a mixture of lightly disguised late-50s American cities and the conceptual furniture of decades of galactic-empire tales (faster-than-light travel, psi-based communications, and sentient robots). The supporting characters are two-dimensional at best, with none of the vibrant eccentricity that writers like Donald Westlake and Carl Hiaasen brought to the comic crime novel, or that Mike Resnick brought to his own sprawling galactic empire.

And that brings me to “Slippery Jim” Di Griz, who – despite his reputation as a swaggering antihero – came off, for me, as oddly colorless and humorless. He has the disregard for rules and authority that befits a Trickster, but not the playfulness or the exuberant delight in his own cleverness. He never seemed to be having any fun, and – by page 83 – neither was I. ( )
1 vote ABVR | Jan 5, 2014 |
“The Stainless Steel Rat” is the first in Harry Harrison’s 12-book series about con man, special agent, and detective “Slippery” Jim diGriz. Remarkably, the series spanned 50 years, from the first book’s publication in 1961 to the last book’s publication in 2010. Although Harrison never won a major award for any of his stories or novels, he was made an SFWA Grand Master in 2008, in recognition of his entire body of work. “The Stainless Steel Rat” is the first book or story I’ve read by Harrison.

In brief, “The Stainless Steel Rat” is a genuinely fun story that artfully blends the detective noir and space opera genres. It also has a dash of James Bond-like spy action to spice things up. I thoroughly enjoyed the twists and turns of the plot, even though I could anticipate many of them. The novel (and, indeed, the series) is also known for being humorous. Although I generally didn’t find “The Stainless Steel Rat” to be particularly funny, there was one part which had me laughing out loud, a rarity when it comes to written fiction. The novel’s diverse mix of elements, fast pacing, and short length (It can easily be read in an afternoon.) make it a very worthy choice for time-pressed mystery SF fans.

The novel is set in the far future, when humans have colonized many worlds, linked by faster-than-light starships and telepathic individuals who can transmit faster-than-light messages. The science of psychology has advanced tremendously, and all young people are screened in order to detect (and correct) any criminal tendencies. (Apparently, life on human worlds is somewhat utopian, or at least does not afford any pressures sufficient to induce a psychologically normal person to commit a crime.) Those individuals who evade the psychological screening are usually caught after one or two minor crimes. However, a rare few people become master criminals, taking advantage of society’s complacency to become rich and powerful, threatening the stability of human worlds.

Jim diGriz is one such criminal mastermind. However, his crime spree is interrupted by the involvement of the Special Corps, humanity’s top interplanetary problem-solving agency, reminiscent of the UK’s MI-5 or the United States’ FBI. Jim soon finds himself pursuing a ruthless killer whose intelligence and cunning may be—at least—the equal of his own.

Jim is a very likable, cocky, and gifted character. He’s self-serving and chaotic (in the D&D sense, the opposite of “lawful”), but ultimately good at heart. In these ways, he is reminiscent of protagonists that Roger Zelazny is fond of writing about (for instance, in Lord of Light or the first five books of Amber). Unlike Zelazny’s characters, Jim’s special powers are restricted to his fast thoughts, clever plans, and sly use of society’s conventions and norms. He has nothing resembling a superpower. If you crossed one of Zelazny’s protagonists with Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s detective from “The Big Sleep” (1939), you might end up with someone like Jim diGriz.

On the downside, the setting is not a strength of the work. Although the book supposedly takes place in the far future, most planets bear a very strong resemblance to the United States in the 1960s, albeit with a considerable number of robots thrown in. At least the robots do behave—amusingly—as modern day computers sometimes do when dealing with situations where a little intuition and perspective would go a long way. I find myself powerfully curious to learn if the Stainless Steel Rat books written in the 1990s and 2010 take advantage of real-world advances in technology in order to update their vision of what the far future might have in store.

In summary, “The Stainless Steel Rat” is a quick, fun, and fast-moving book, and the concept and protagonist seem well-suited to a long series of adventures. I am surprised that this series and Harry Harrison have such a low profile compared to many other SF series and writers. (As one example, I’ll mention the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, which has a similar concept and multi-book approach.) ( )
2 vote jrissman | May 27, 2013 |
A good old-fashioned space opera about a reformed con-man with a surprisingly-strong moral fiber. Very well written, entertaining, and a cool window into the mind of a writer from the 60s. The future was so different back then. ( )
  Melhael | Apr 27, 2013 |
A good old-fashioned space opera about a reformed con-man with a surprisingly-strong moral fiber. Very well written, entertaining, and a cool window into the mind of a writer from the 60s. The future was so different back then. ( )
  Melhael | Apr 27, 2013 |
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Gigante, PhilNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0722144814, Paperback)

Jim DiGriz is caught during one of his crimes and recruited into the Special Corps. Boring, routine desk work during his probationary period results in his discovering that someone is building a battleship, thinly disguised as an industrial vessel. In the peaceful League no one has battleships anymore, so the builder of this one would be unstoppable. DiGriz' hunt for the guilty becomes a personal battle between himself and the beautiful but deadly Angelina, who is planning a coup on one of the feudal worlds. DiGriz' dilemma is whether he will turn Angelina over to the Special Corps, or join with her, since he has fallen in love with her.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:57:11 -0400)

Jim DiGriz is caught during one of his crimes and recruited into the Special Corps. Boring, routine desk work during his probationary period results in his discovering that someone is building a battleship, thinly disguised as an industrial vessel. In the peaceful League no one has battleships anymore, so the builder of this one would be unstoppable. DiGriz' hunt for the guilty becomes a personal battle between himself and the beautiful but deadly Angelina, who is planning a coup on one of the feudal worlds. DiGriz' dilemma is whether he will turn Angelina over to the Special Corps, or join with her, since he has fallen in love with her.… (more)

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